Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: 'Italy Vs. England' By George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)

Italy vs. England

With all its sinful doings, I must say,
That Italy’s a pleasant place to me,
Who love to see the sun shine every day,
And vines (not nailed to walls) from tree to tree
Festooned, much like the back scene of a play,
Or melodrame, which people flock to see,
When the first act is ended by a dance
In vineyards copied from the South of France.

I like on autumn evenings to ride out,
Without being forced to bid my groom be sure
My cloak is round his middle strapped about,
Because the skies are not the most secure ;
I know too that, if stopped upon my route,
Where the green alleys windingly allure,
Reeling with grapes red wagons choke the way.—
In England ’twould be dung, dust, or a dray.

I also like to dine on becaficas,
To see the sun set, sure he’ll rise to-morrow,
Not through a misty morning twinkling weak as
A drunken man’s dead eye in maudlin sorrow,
But with all Heaven to himself ; the day will break as
Beauteous as cloudless, nor be forced to borrow
That sort of farthing candlelight which glimmers
Where reeking London’s smoky cauldron simmers.

I love the language, that soft bastard Latin,
Which melts like kisses from a female mouth,
And sounds as if it should be writ on satin,
With syllables which breathe of the sweet South,
And gentle liquids gliding all so pat in,
That not a single accent seems uncouth,
Like our harsh northern whistling, grunting guttural,
Which we’re obliged to hiss, and spit, and sputter all.

I like the women too (forgive my folly!),
From the rich peasant cheek of ruddy bronze,
And large black eyes that flash on you a volley
Of rays that say a thousand things at once,
To the high Dama’s brow, more melancholy,
But clear, and with a wild and liquid glance,
Heart on her lips, and soul within her eyes,
Soft as her clime, and sunny as her skies.

Eve of the land which still is Paradise !
Italian Beauty ! didst thou not inspire
Raphael, who died in thy embrace, and vies
With all we know of Heaven, or can desire,
In what he had bequeathed us ?—in what guise,
Though flashing from the fervour of the lyre,
Would words described thy past and present glow,
While yet Canova can create below ?

‘England ! with all thy faults I love thee still’,
I said at Calais, and have not forgot it ;
I like to speak and lucubrate my fill ;
I like the government (but that is not it) ;
I like the freedom of the press and quill ;
I like the Habeas Corpus (when we’ve got it) ;
I like a Parliamentary debate,
Particularly when ’tis not too late ;

I like the taxes, when they’re not too many ;
I like a seacoal fire, when not too dear ;
I like a beef-steak, too, as well as any ;
Have no objection to a pot of beer ;
I like the weather,—when it is not rainy,
That is, I like two months of every year.
And so God save the Regent, Church, and King !
Which means that I like all and every thing.

Our standing army, and disbanded seamen,
Poor’s rate, Reform, my own, the nation’s debt,
Our little riots just to show we’re free men,
Our trifling bankruptcies in the Gazette,
Our cloudy climate, and our chilly women,
All these I can forgive, and those forget,
And greatly venerate our recent glories,
And wish they were not owing to the Tories.

Lord Byron
Lord Byron
Ironic that the very same boorish individuals who choose to denigrate the opposing team’s anthem before international football matches are champing at the bit to escape these shores for warmer, European climes. In a pandemic world uncannily consistent with their prejudices, these flag-waving, inward-looking nationalists should be grateful that Covid has temporarily closed the exit doors. And Byron, one suspects, would turn in his grave…

Better, in his brilliant and even-handed piss-take, to practice what his Augustan poetic forbears taught him: Pope and Dryden’s satires pricked balloons of conceit whilst never overburdening their audiences with wilful cruelty. The virtues of the Grand Tour honed Byron’s intellectual armoury, and embellished an awareness made sharper by personal experience of the blandishments of an Italian landscape, culture, and language as soft as if it was ‘writ on satin’.

The opening series of octets yield a kind of internal diptych which mimics the oppositional tension of the mock-heroic couplet, contrasting the relative merits of each country in turn, in terms of weather, physical attribute and linguistic adornment. England does not fare well in the balance: the groaning grape wagons of Italy cast their English counterparts in clouds of dung and dust; the gentle gliding liquids of Romance tones are met with the hiss, spit and sputter of guttural northern Europe, and cloudless southern skies are besmirched by the darker smudges of ‘London’s smoky cauldron’.

Byron’s change of tone in the final three stanzas signals a kind of resolution. The repetitive inventory of ‘attractions’ amounts not so much to a patriotic defence mechanism as to a candid and pragmatic acceptance of embattled idiosyncrasy. The poet’s unrestrained wit releases a free flow of ideas which underscore an enduring affiliation not yet sunk in a sea of hypocrisy, corruption and ugliness.

Plus ça change

‘Italy vs. England’ is taken from The Oxford Book of English Verse and is published by the Oxford University Press.